Reading Professor Obama: Race and the American Constitutional Tradition
88 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2012 Last revised: 13 Jun 2015
Date Written: August 17, 2012
“Reading Professor Obama” mines Barack Obama’s syllabus on “Current Issues in Racism and the Law” for evidence of his beliefs about race, law, and jurisprudence. The syllabus for the 1994 seminar at the University of Chicago, which provides the reading assignments and structure for the course, has been available on the New York Times website since July 2008. Other than a few responses solicited by the New York Times when it published the syllabus, however, there has been little attention to the material Obama assigned or to what it suggests about Obama’s approach to the law and racism.
The readings begin by discussing the malleability of racial categories and progress to cases from the nineteenth century on Native Americans and on slavery. The second day’s readings shifted to the Reconstruction era and changes in the Constitution and statutory law, as well as the rise of the “Jim Crow” system of segregation and the response of African American intellectuals. The third class covered the Civil Rights revolution and retrenchment and included reading from such diverse figures as Robert Bork, Lino Graglia, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. The fourth class, “Where Do We Go From Here?” addressed some of the enduring issues of inequality facing our nation, the fragility of the African American middle class, continuing racism against African Americans, and a concluding plea from Cornel West for more understanding. After the initial four class meetings, student groups made presentations. The syllabus has suggested topics for the presentations and brief discussion of those topics.
Recently, Obama has been linked to Derrick Bell; however, notwithstanding the option to read Bell’s summaries of cases in lieu of the opinions themselves, there is no overt endorsement of Derrick Bell, Critical Race Theory (“CRT”), or Bell’s Interest-convergence theory. Obama included many critics of CRT and offered readings that indicate he hoped for substantially more discussion and perhaps, ultimately, economic uplift of those labeled by some of his readings “the truly disadvantaged.” Obama’s choice to use the title of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? as the title of the last group of readings suggests that Obama did not share Bell’s vision of the unalterable nature of racism.
The readings, while instructive, are just the starting point of our analysis. Obama’s voice appears in his framing of the suggested topics for student presentations and often aligns with arguments advanced by CRT scholars. His suggested topics encourage students to wrestle with the modern consequences of racism and to question its malleability. Thus, we suggest that the readings and group presentation topics reveal Obama, the teacher, as interested in many of the key questions of Critical Race Theory even as he moved in new and pragmatic directions. For he did not see racism as permanent and he sought inter-racial political coalitions. The syllabus suggests that many of the ideas that surfaced later in candidate and President Obama were present in the classroom of Professor Obama.
Keywords: Obama, Critical Race Theory, Race and Law
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation